Tectonics 2007 Conference Text

  • Text title: PLASTICITY: Plastic Parametric Pavilion
  • Topic: Tectonic strategies in ecological and sustainable design
  • Author(s): Fraguada, Luis; Salisbury, Shane; Wittig, Monika
  • Institute for Advanced Architecture Catalunya
  • Keywords: digital fabrication, parametric, collaboration, ecological
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    PLASTI+CITY | Parametric Plastic Pavilion

    1. Consequential Tectonics

    1.1 Introduction

    Project PLASTICITY positions the tectonic condition as an emergent consequence of mediation amongst ever-changing regulations, technology, collaborations, economies, etc. Classic definitions of tectonics remain valid in the connotation of a junction of various materials, technologies, and practices. More so than a dedicated design detail however, PLASTICITY, proposes a wider, fluid understanding of tectonics as an indeterminate juncture of material deviation, technological advances, regulatory provisions (among others). The proposed tectonic view enables such fluctuation even within the phases of a single project. Critical to the realization of a plastically developing project (and the emergent plastic tectonic), PLASTICITY is rooted in parametric practices (equally as a design tool and operative multi-directional mode of design/fabrication).

    1.2  La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona)

    ‘Tectonics as consequence’ is evident in the comparison of the Nativity and Passion facades of Antoní Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Gaudi’s church, under construction for over 100 years, serves as an essential example of how a tectonic communicates changes in construction technology, material availability, economic environment, and design sensibilities.  The contrast in the figurative Nativity façade (construction overseen by Gaudi) and the highly symbolic Passion façade exemplify a continuous development of the building’s tectonic character. The tectonic understanding of a building is far from best understood through a series of construction details, but rather by the surrounding events and shifting resources throughout construction. Sagrada’s tectonic development has been stimulated by factors such as the economic environment, political rule, technological advances, and changes in building codes (to name a few).  The Sagrada Familia is a living project—a simultaneous staging of excavation, documentation, prototyping, parametric modeling—overall a definitively parametric process. In such a project of concurrent phases, the tectonic is an emergent operative system reacting to complex dynamic relationships between fluctuating project agents.

    1.3 Auto Design via Environmental Regulation

    The Sagrada Familia stands as an example of the critical associations in an encompassing view of tectonics, yet it falls short of addressing specifically the impact on design by recent environmental regulations.  The automotive industry, accruing retired vehicle waste at a rate of eight to nine million tons per year, is held to regulations (since 2005) mandating end-of-life process design considerations. Automobiles (and light trucks) require 85% re-usable/recyclable mass or 95% re-useable/recoverable. (European Union, 2005) Now consider the un-environmentally-regulated building industry accounting for 2/3 of the worlds energy consumption. If automotive industries are embracing issues of extended design project time-scale, clearly too the time has come for architectural practices. What tectonic implications might similar provisions have on the building industry? How may an expanded tectonic understanding communicate a capacity to manage increasing rate of shifting project factors? (European Union, 2005)

    2. Project Plasticity

    2.1  Project Basis

    Project PLASTICITY takes form at the convergence point of the two prior examples. Through utilization of current design/construction technology and extended product-life considerations—PLASTICITY attempts to forward the notion that architectural practices should not be exempt from stringent life cycle regulation, and further—that an architectural process embedded within existing industrial processes is aptly suited (addressing process sustainability over mere product).

    PLASTICITY commenced with the merging interests of an academic institute (Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia) to research material driven digital design/fabrication processes and a local plastics manufacturer (Lasentiu) with interests in broadening their production components confined to limited product line.

    2.2 Plastic Base

    At the root of the collaborative investigation, lies the intrigue with Lasentiu’s resourceful material production—the reclamation of low grade plastics discarded by recycling plants (as suboptimal for recycling compared with PET, etc) and otherwise destined for incineration or the landfill. In a world increasingly saturated with single-use plastics, Lasentiu cultivates the potential for expansion of material lifecycles within a viable economy of sustainability.

    • 2.2.1     European Plastic Consumption

    • The building industry consumed 8.7 million tons of plastics in 2004, accounting for 20% of EU’s total plastic consumption. Currently no regulations exist for the adoption of processes that facilitate the recycling and re-use of plastics in the building industry, however, the European Commission has deployed a task group to deal with the development of regulations that will seek to promote similar design oriented recommendations as implemented for the automotive sector. (Plastics Europe, 2004) Current indicators of plastics consumption, recovery, re-use, and recycling reveal a robust infrastructure already in place dealing with the management of waste and post-user plastics.  The building industry therefore could benefit from adopting a design strategy focused on extended lifecycle considerations both on the micro and macro levels of a project’s material organization
    • 2.2.2 Catalan Plastic Consumption (Spain)

    • Lasentiu serves as an agent within the local Catalonian plastics infrastructure—processing 2,000 tons of waste in 2004 in their single factory operation (80 km North of Barcelona). (Lasentiu, 2007) Manufacturing a 100% recycled/recyclable material (syntrewood), Lasentiu collects compacted bales (discards of local recycling plants) consisting mainly of domestic plastics (from urban recycling receptacles containing the likes of plastic bags, toothpaste tubes, tetra paks, etc). Production first grinds the crushed plastics into small chips followed by an attempt to sift out of all metals. Using medium temperature, Lasentiu melts resultant plastic chips into pellets. Robotic armatures reheat pellets and pressure mold (to one of about 200 current molds). A series of secondary processes further specify components for particular  use (i.e. cleaning edges of molded component followed by drilling of holes for the attachment of secondary structure). Lasentiu’s production heavily concentrates on chair components (producing the interior seating/backrest components reliant on another company upholstering for final finish). Further products include garden/storage shelving, trash bins, and similar products of rough industrial finishes.

    2.3   Collaborative Embedding

    With Lasentiu manufacturing not only a material, but also material use-specific products, it is clear that product potential drives the transformation of the material manufacturing. Conversely this also holds true for how material manufacturing developments stimulate product potentials. Aware of this inherent feedback loop, Lasentiu welcomes collaborations with designers in an attempt to utilize creative minds to propose new products and hence drive advancements in materiality. The immediate interest on IAAC side of the academic/industry collaboration, lied in opening the production possibilities to reach architectural proportions. In initial explorations stemming from the interest in designing building components, its important to note that it quickly became clear that the design task at hand was essentially unable to disassociate itself from the larger system of intelligence—the production process itself.

    To date many projects digitally fabricated rooted in mass-customization, face criticism for the magnitude of material waste resulting from computer controlled subtractive processes. On one hand, Lasentiu’s process immediately addresses this issue—offering the production capacity to readily accept discarded material for re-cycling. On the other hand, this would not suffice as scholarly achievement on the capacity of the project contribution to forwarding sustainable practices. The realization here became, the project was less about working with a particular materiality (recyclables), and more about the embracing of material process considerations as critical parameters of the design agenda. In this manner, the value of the research agenda had not as it’s goal any one formal outcome, but rather the meaningful engagement with the existing industrial process. Greater rigor was placed on the speculation of process sustainability (ability to encounter forces of economics, eco-logics, culturalpractices, technological adaptations, etc) over a mere materiality’s recycling capacity.

    2.4    Collective Plastic Properties

    The collaborative terms permitted IAAC unlimited supply of syntrewood material components for prototyping.  With a non-typical, completely open-ended design agenda, and an initial request for a range of components (a planar component, one of single curvature, and a double curvature component) first efforts went into understanding of the materiality, resulting for example in the unexpected brittle nature of Syntrewood components. Evaluations on material properties prompted testing on: high and low temperature reactions (for testing of melting point, bending, surface bubbling, and adhesion to one another through plastic welding), results from machining techniques (laser cutter, CNC mill), and general property data (weight, weight bearing per component).

    2.5 Component Plastic Properties

    Realizing the open project agenda, the design team concluded the need to impose constraints (to aid project development) —starting by honing in on one particular Lastentiu component to accumulate precise intelligence of geometric repercussions on assemblies. Through an evaluation of material properties, the component of choice was a double-curved back rest component. Chosen specifically for the differential cross-sections and structural potential of its double curvature.  In this moment the project switched from nearly unconstrained, to specifying a parameter driving consideration of other phases (i.e for production, how a molding device or other means is necessary to secure a double curved piece for machining).

    2.6     Properties of the Plastic

    The ‘plastic’ project realm connotes all things fluctuating. From the project materiality (discrepancies in non-homogeneous material matter and considerable deviances in geometries within standard component families) to the tectonic development—to be understood as a fluid, evolving mediation between active design parameters. ‘Plastic’ contextualizes project development in a state of non-linear progressions lending way to the inevitable utilization of parametric practices. ‘Plasticity’ evolved as a parametric strategy to deal with these fluctuations in order to more suitably engage Syntrewood as a viable construction alternative.

    3.   Plastics

    3.1  Plastic Parametrics

    PLASTICITY progresses through an alternating approach that utilizes the rigorous investigation of specific geometric properties to drive material parameters and of greater significance allowing the acquiring of such micro-scale intelligence the capacity to make overall general redirections—holding enormous tectonic project impact.  It is in this flux between nearsighted-farsighted vantage point that PLASTICITY truly embraces indeterminacy and allows fluctuation—the extent to which becomes evident in the following understanding of the intersecting levels parametric practices in the project. At the root of this shifting capacity lies the mediation between a seemingly low-tech material and advanced computer numerically controlled technology utilized in the automobile and aeronautics industry. The innovation of the collaboration lies simply in this fact (the connecting of polar ends of a technological spectrum), enabling the transformation of a low tech material with an origin in domestic waste treated with high-technology to reach level innovative building components.  From recycling to up-cycling—attempting to increase value in subsequent lifecycles. The process is therefore clearly no longer limited to the scale of a single component, but rather it expands the scope of operation—a component driven design multi-life material system.

    • 3.1.1 Parametric Modeling
    • >
    • Associative design (specifically the parametric software Top Solid) was employed in altering the standard manufactured components in an attempt to expose strengths/weaknesses and local/global effects of the generated reductive component iterations. Differentiating component systems explored a range of alterations—namely (1) removal of corners that proved problematic in trial assemblies of standardized components (2) removal of areas beyond optimal structural zones of double curvature to relieve weight (3) machining of material joints.  Associative design also allowed for the control between the component scale of the project, defining single component parameters, and the global scale, where the characteristics of the single take part in shaping the overall assembly.  The associative intelligence was first merged onto a single component in an attempt to define a general system for relating to other components.  By defining this specific relative behavior on a single component, no initial form had to be imposed in order to continue the project. Growing successively to the macro scale, associative design further exercises control between the parametrically differentiated components and their populations creating global morphologies.
    • >
    • (Marta Male-Alemany on plasticity components):
    • “…the pieces are differentiated.  This allows us to think on a global scale.  Smaller pieces will allow us to make sharp curves, while the larger pieces allow for shallower angles.  Therefore we are calibrating the type of curvature we are trying to achieve with the size of the component.” (Obermair, 2007).
    • 3.1.2 Parametric Production

    • At the same time materiality informs the parametric modeling phase, the parametric modeling process is inter-reliant to the production phase. The associative models not only worked within the scale of differentiation of a single component, but were also taking in parameters from production and assembly constraints. New component variations were sent to production daily (cnc milled) allowing prototypes to rapidly inform digital modeling. This nearly ‘live’ design approach allowed designing to continue late into our time frame relying on digital-physical congruence and preceeding prototypes (enabling a high degree of confidence in realizing designs). Scripting processes streamlined the preparation of files for fabrication (re-orienting component origins to a base origin for files used to generate code for CNC milling) as well as the codification of pieces for assembly. Time factors facilitate the viable scale of construction in meeting project deadlines—greatly informing the emerging project tectonic. This points to the overall compression of phases as parametric practices nearly negates turn-around time between classic ‘design’ and ‘construction’ phases.
    • 3.1.3 Parametric Process

    • With a conscious effort to keep the project workspace as ‘parametric’ as possible, the association between local/global geometries, congruence between digital modeling/physical prototyping, project team communication allowed all levels of tests to immediately inform one another. The parametric project model was more than management of design-to-output, rather a ‘communicative agent’ in a series of interrelated processes and constraints. A parametric approach is afterall… ‘determined indeterminancy’. Programmatic and functional aspects should be understood as a further set of parameters that interact with the adaptable form.

    4. ‘Projected’ Plasticity

    4.1  Pavilion Parametrics

    The ‘pavilion’ typology stands to communicate the multiple factors capable of driving the project on a continual parametric manner to the wider ‘project scale’ while reinforcing the pertinent factors—adaptability to variable site and programmatic conditions, construction considerations for possibly a temporary condition, and project scale whereby management of an entire integrated design/construction process maintains feasibility. Further here in the pavilion realm, the project for the first time encounters top-down influences—programmatic/contextual specific inputs. Here significantly, marks the project compromise between the emergent potential of the component variations and deterministic constraints of top-down programmatic/site factors.

    4.2  Prototypical Pavilion

    Designating a 1:1 working scale throughout the project has immediately forced the engagement with the tectonic condition. Regulating congruency in scales of digital/physical versions connotes the true meaning in digital tectonics.  Physical models realized through digital means are not merely representative configurations but live prototypes subjected to the factors of any fully fabricated iteration (forces of gravity, weight-bearing, joint stresses, material deviation, etc) and feed such critical data back to digital model to forward the next physical iteration. For a project finding worth in the precise control of local tectonic variations as a means of effectively testing global form reactions, designing through full-scale digital-physical feedback loops is a critical working context.

    4.3 Pavilion Installation

    The constructed publicly-displayed iteration of PLASTICITY derived its form via 219 differentiated industrial components. This installation during a bi-annual EU construction industry fair sought to serve Lasentiu by intriguing designers to interact with their manufactured materiality (prefaced over the displaying of currently produced products). The process of project PLASTICITY elaborated the worth of accumulating intelligence from a multi-industry collaboration on a multi-scale manner as means to the arrival at a economic, environmental, local-global relational tectonic. This tectonic of non-standard proportions which defies traditional definitions and ultimately what succeeded in showcasing material potential for Lasentiu.

    4.4 Parameter Extension

    Material lifecycle becomes an important implication when designing for temporal applications.  This drives consideration a larger infrastructure of production, application, recycling and re-use.  It is through the pavilion realm that all of the tectonic aspects merge. Adaptability was a key factor in not only the design of the pavilion, but also of the process. An adaptable process allowed for an adaptable tectonic to emerge, taking information from a multiplicity of project aspects.

    4. Conclusion of Tectonic Proportions

    PLASTI+CITY emerged as a model of manipulation of mass-produced standards via an associative industrial-architectural process resulting in an adaptable tectonic.  Through ‘Plasticity’ (defined as a state of fluid project development) a progression of nonlinear, integrated design/fabrication evolutions merged into a collection of knowledge about the potentials and limits syntrewood as a materiality explored for use at the building industry scale. This jumping of scales of component application (to one of spatial enclosures and building surfaces) was perhaps the most extreme yet effective aspect of the proposal to Lasentiu by the IAAC team. This premise of speculation drove a series multi-layered parametric exercises dealing with immense number of choices (nature of open-ended design agenda). Ironically, imposing limitations freed the process (enabling decisions and paths of progression) –grounding an otherwise floating parametric investigation.  In this grounding, tectonic evaluations proved the driving force in realizing the final system (one sited appropriately at a leading building industry fair of innovative practices and products). Considering the production of a material of a moldable nature, why restrict the investigation to systems of differentiation for their existing standard components, rather than redirect focus to new mold possibilities from which new components are derived?  The preference to exploit existing tectonic potentials over reinventing a new component is rooted in industrial process-parametrics.  What was proposed is a secondary, parametrically controlled system for altering existing product components for use in architectural applications. While architectural designers increasingly engage with material driven design variations, few reinform the actual industrial material process (mostly limited to post industry-production). The process by which Plasticity was realized allows Lasentiu to immediately implement a custom differentiation process within their existing production infrastructure. Hence, as Lasentiu essentially supplied IaaC with a process over product, consequentially IAAC delivered a proposal for process manipulation over formal design configuration—giving Lasentiu immediate access to expanding their product scale immensely through parametric practices over further economic investment. Project PLASTICITY arrived at an understanding of this critical point and in turn reoriented its oscillating research agenda to hone in on an elaborated investigation of alteration of standard parts over new mold design—in the end guaranteeing the acquired knowledge will significantly aid an informed direction towards the next more costly development phase–the design of a new mold.

    PLASTI+CITY  | Parametric Plastic Pavilion                                    Fraguada, Salisbury, Wittig

    Works Cited:

    European Parliament and Council of the European Union.  (2005).  Directive 2005/64/EC:

    The Reusing, recycling and recovering of motor vehicles. Strasbourg, France.

    Frampton, Kenneth. (2002). Labour, work and architecture: collected essays on Architecture

    and Design.  New York: Phaidon.

    Lasentiu. “Company” Nov. 2007 < http://www.lasentiu.com/ >.

    Oberman, D. (2007). [Interview with Marta Male-Alemany]. On I On Comunicacion.

    Spain: Barcelona.

    Plastics Europe. “Analysis of plastics production, demand and recovery in Europe, 2004.”

    Summer 2006.

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